The hugely influential 19th-century art critic John Ruskin is said to have influenced the success of the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti and to have earned the undying fandom of no less than Gandhi and Tolstoy. But the poor bastard is nowadays more discussed in art history classes for a bit of gossip that may well have been apocryphal: He allegedly fainted on his wedding night after learning that his first wife hadn't shaved off her pubic hair. Ruskin formed his ideal of beauty from Greek sculpture and the Renaissance painters, whose church sponsors placed a burden of depilatory morality on the artists' shoulders.
Real or not, Ruskin's horror is useful in fem lit circles to underscore a larger and largely indisputable point. The history of Western art associated body hair in general, but female body hair in particular, with feral sexuality, of a desire for achieving un-Christian pleasures rather than simply procreation from the genitals. It's a vision of God's temple with an opening uncorrupted by adolescence, and although the reference to Ruskin is brief and wry in Echo Theatre's production of the one-man rant An Almost Holy Picture, it resounds like a church bell throughout the show. Playwright Heather McDonald has penned a very peculiar two-hour monologue about an ex-priest's various related obsessions--God, the gardening that he's turned to for his livelihood, the resilient women in his life who make him look ineffectual by comparison--that constantly threatens to topple over into wearisome self-infatuation. That narcissism, which reaches its height in our protagonist's constant, territorial worry over his afflicted daughter--a prepubescent girl plagued with excess hair caused by a congenital condition--can be both noxious and exhilarating in the same evening. Luckily, director Rene Moreno is wily in the ways that those moods can play off each other, and he has a fiercely intelligent actor in Undermain co-founder Raphael Parry. Even when he appears to have his head stuck hopelessly up his bum, Parry exudes a palpable restlessness that makes us believe he's continuing his search, sincere if misguided, for peace.
An Almost Holy Picture rolls and curves along the tracks of the memory of a mostly sad life. Samuel Gentle (Parry) warns us early about the loosely connected nature of the scenes that have brought him to this moment in his life. "I cannot promise anything. I will give you the images I know," he says, and proceeds to take us with an offhand humor that becomes increasingly bitter back to the time he received his calling to the priesthood. ("Follow me," a voice declares to the boy Samuel as he walks with his father up a hill.) It continues through a horrific school bus accident in the desert that marks the end of his troubled tenure in the church but creates a lifelong friendship with a taciturn female farmer named Inez. It comes around again to marriage with a steely anthropology professor and the birth of their daughter Ariel. She suffers from lanugo, a hereditary disease that makes downy hair grow from head to foot. Samuel shaves his daughter twice a week with straight razor and water-filled basin, apparently gaining a sense of Christ-like humility from the act that will be ripped away the summer Ariel decides to go hairy and is admired by a troubled young man with a camera.
It would be a stretch to say the scent of incest lingers in Samuel Gentle's maintenance of the child's body, but the playwright mercilessly slams home how easily a father's natural protectiveness can lapse into ownership, jealousy and ambivalence to the reality of his little girl's separate sexual identity. Heather McDonald has told interviewers that An Almost Holy Picture is based in part on a rare and disfiguring bone disease that befell a young relative of hers and how difficult it was for her family to navigate their conflicted feelings about that girl's changing appearance. McDonald switched to a condition that has more mystical potential (Ariel is constantly compared to various animals in the script and is taunted by classmates with the refrain "Mary had a little lamb...and the doctor screamed"), thus allowing simple repugnance to take on otherworldly textures.
Echo Theatre has assembled a virtual design reunion of former Undermain Theatre artists. Sound man and composer Bruce Richardson, set and video creator Robert Winn and light man Robert McVay have cushioned their longtime compatriot's anxious ramblings with a lush, spooky bed of sights and noises. They've obviously read McDonald's play intently and eschewed any personal muses to take their cues directly from the playwright. Images of cathedrals, vast flower gardens turning pale in winter and darkened windows proliferate to complement the changing seasons and fortunes of Samuel Gentle's narrative. Collectively, they air out the somewhat cramped Bath House Cultural Center space, reminding you that an effective theatrical mood can knock down walls.
Because of the heavy reliance on metaphors, religious traditions and sacred codes, not to mention a single perspective that's uninterrupted, An Almost Holy Picture can be taken in almost any direction the actor and director want to go. One critic of a staging at Berkeley Repertory Theatre said that the actor in that production was "chain-smoking while rambling on with a crazed look in his eyes." In other words, you can make Samuel Gentle earn his last name as a befuddled but well-intentioned Job trying to make sense of his burdens, or you can get all ironic about his surname and charge right into psychosis armed with the aforementioned incestuous overtones and hints that the somewhat fantastic events happened only in the protagonist's mind. Director Moreno and his star Parry have, thankfully, positioned our chatty anti-hero toward the former sympathetic direction, with genuine and painful love for his daughter the grace that's obvious to us but eludes him. Throughout his more than 20 years of stage experience in Dallas, Parry has specialized in comedy, to the point of locating manic comic shades in even the wickedest, most sadistic characters. His cartoonlike energy and elastic facial expressions have not always served him well; he's isolated himself in Tasmanian devil whirlwinds of clownishness while doing Molière and Ayckbourn. But in An Almost Holy Picture he gives his most purely human and heartbreaking performance, radiating a palpable reverence toward the private rituals--pouring out the bowl of red-tinged water after shaving Ariel, dropping one bean into a glass jar for every day of her life--that playwright McDonald has scattered throughout the show.
Echo Theatre acquits itself beautifully with an elegant and edgy show that flies by faster than 120 minutes of one man yammering normally would, but I had the nagging sense that An Almost Holy Picture would work better as a two-person show. I wanted Samuel Gentle's fatalistic, Hopi-inspired wife to share memories of their lives before and after the marriage and what changes Ariel's condition had wrought in her as well. As fine as Parry is, the scope and detail of the author's ambitions ultimately overload him. The world of holy visions, spiritual frustrations and parental sins she constructs requires another witness--an alternative guide, let's say--for us to see it more completely.
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